Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Why It Took More Than Four Months, and Millions of Dollars, to Get “Lost” on Hulu

whatsinthehatchWhat does it take to add a third player to a joint venture between two media conglomerates? More than four months of negotiations. Tens of millions of dollars help too.

That’s what finally allowed Disney (DIS) to join up with GE’s (GE) NBC and News Corp.’s (NWS) Fox in Hulu, the fast-growing Web video site.

The deal, which was finally announced yesterday, has its roots in a November 2007 meeting between Hulu CEO Jason Kilar and Disney’s executive team where Kilar demoed a private beta of the service on Disney CEO Bob Iger’s computer. But the two sides didn’t really start talking in earnest until mid-December of last year.

Since then, people who were involved in the negotiations tell me, the discussions were a long slog, complicated by the fact that there were essentially five parties in the talks. But at no point did the deal ever look to be in jeopardy, I’m told–even though everyone from Google (GOOG) to Comcast (CMCSA) was trying to convince Iger not to go forward.

In the end, Disney essentially agreed to the same terms that NBC and Fox first used when put the site together two years ago. The main components:

  • A two-year guarantee of exclusive third-party access to ABC’s online TV inventory, as well as a smattering of Disney cable shows.
  • Marketing money, to be spent buying market-rate air time promoting Hulu on Disney TV properties. NBC and Fox handed over $50 million each, doled out over two years, when they formed Hulu; I’m told Disney has committed to a similar amount.
  • A cash investment in Hulu itself. I’m told that NBC and Fox kicked in a total of about $30 million to get Hulu off the ground, prior to getting Providence Equity Partners to pony up $100 million for a 10 percent stake. Given that NBC and Fox took on substantial risk when they contributed their stakes, it’s likely that Disney ended up paying a larger sum.

At least as important as Disney’s contribution, though, is NBC and Fox’s decision to re-up their exclusivity arrangements for another two years. Some executives at NBC and Fox I’ve talked to have downplayed this part of the deal, arguing that their companies would have kept working with Hulu even without renewing their exclusives, which were expiring.

But the reality is that if NBC and Fox had not renewed, it would have been a signal that the networks were no longer committed to their joint venture, a question that’s been whispered more and more often in recent months. There are also some practical effects when it comes to dealing with the cable guys (see below).

The deal still needs regulatory approval, and you may hear the likes of Google and Comcast murmuring loudly that a partnership between three of the four broadcast networks violates antitrust statues. But assuming it does go through, here are some of the ripple effects:

CBS: The broadcaster is on a lonely road, which is not where entertainment companies like to find themselves. It may well be that the Web strategy CBS has been pursuing–don’t put too much of your stuff online, but syndicate the stuff you do put out there as widely as possible–is the right way to go. But if CBS CEO Les Moonves ever changes his mind, he will have a hard time climbing aboard the good ship Hulu.

For the record, Kilar is enthusiastic about bringing on CBS: “We’d love to see CBS jump into Hulu,” he says. We’d love to see Time Warner (TWX) jump in to Hulu, too.”

But executives at his partner networks–the same guys who forced him to cut off Web upstart Boxee, remember–says that the door is shut for CBS, at least in terms of the equity deal ABC just got.

If CBS (CBS) does want to make a deal with a big Web distributor, it may well end up doing something with Google’s YouTube, which already distributes snippets of CBS shows on its site. You won’t hear CBS bragging about this out loud, but I’m told partnership has worked out very well for the network to date.

The cable guys: Note that there’s very little of Disney’s premium cable stuff on Hulu–just a smattering of SoapNet and a few shows from the Disney Channel, but nothing your kids care about. And there’s zilch from ESPN.

That’s because Iger doesn’t want to freak out cable operators that pay Disney billions a year for cable programming. So that stuff will stay offline. (Meanwhile, it may get increasingly hard to find some of the NBC/Fox cable programming on Hulu, for the same reason. Good luck watching the most recent episode of FX’s “Rescue Me,” for instance).

But the Disney move, along with NBC and Fox’s commitment to re-up their exclusivity arrangement, just complicated efforts by the likes of Comcast and Time Warner to push an “authentication” arrangement. That’s where cable subscribers–but only cable subscribers–get access to a wealth of TV on the Web.

Without the exclusivity clause, the cable guys could demand that the networks hand over their best stuff directly to them for their online efforts. Now, at least for the next two years, they’ll have work through Hulu, on Hulu’s terms.

It may be that the cable guys are so far away from making their authentication plans a reality–I’m told Comcast’s test will launch this summer with just a few thousand subscribers and will add something like 50,000 subscribers a month after that–that this might not mean much. It’s possible that by the time the cable guys are ready to really talk shop with their programmers, the two-year deals will be long expired.

Bonus: We get to see new Hulu ads, starring actors from ABC shows. I’m hoping for one featuring Jorge Garcia, who plays Hurley on “Lost.” For now, here’s the newest one in the current campaign, featuring Dennis Leary from “Rescue Me.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald